Cult Projections: You’ve made two distinct genre movies: an ultraviolent revenge flick, The Horseman (2008), and now a deeply atmospheric supernatural horror, Bloodlands. How deep is your love of horror movies? What are the movies from your youth that have had a lasting impression on you?
Steven: An American Werewolf in London shook me to my core as a child. I was watching it at a family friend’s place, they lived in the bush, it was night and the whole family had to try and calm me down during the werewolf transformation sequence. I’m still too scared to camp out alone just from the opening scene. But I grew up with more action/adventure stuff of the 80s. I do like the way you can affect an audience in horror. That’s what pulls me towards it and the craft around horror works well for my gloomy style too.
CP: The Horseman was made on your home turf in Queensland and is very much an Ozploitation kind of movie, but you shot Bloodlands in Albania in the native tongue and dealt with local folklore. Did you originally intend to set the movie in Europe? What were the factors that decided on the story’s setting? Why did it take so long between features?
S: I took my time writing many spec scripts for various projects, but I didn’t chase any of them particularly hard and then I got really itchy to shoot something so when I heard about the blood feuds and Albania as a country I pulled the trigger. I’d had lots of ideas over the years of how to approach another micro-budget production, with an even smaller production than The Horseman. And on my next attempt at low budget filmmaking, I want to go even leaner again. I think keeping an ultra-light footprint as a film crew allows much more freedom and with all the great tools we have now in both practical camera, lighting and grip gear and digital post tools that are affordable and easy to use, we have no excuses left if we really want to make something.
CP: On The Horseman you wrote, produced, and directed, but also edited, and was the digital colorist. Bloodlands has a very distinct look and feel. Who was the cinematographer? What was the movie shot on?
S: Leandër Ljarja was the DOP. He was a great collaborator with helping me approach a low budget horror film with a broad filmmaking arsenal of tricks needed to get what the script asked, with extremely limited resources. He had shot no drama or short films at all, just some music videos. But he talked me through his process and he knew his shit so I hired him. Aldi Karaj was our second camera/lighting/grip guy and I operated a lot too. It was shot on the tiny Blackmagic Pocket cameras. They’re the only camera that size that shoots RAW video internally. I bought three of them with a bunch of lenses and took it all to Albania with a sound kit.
CP: Did you edit and color Bloodlands yourself, like on The Horseman? How important is the role of colorist, especially in the digital age? Would you ever let someone else edit?
S: I would love someone else to edit, but both my features weren’t fully funded until the editing was complete and Screen Australia or a sales company stepped in and handed us a chunk of money. But those funds mostly go to the people in the final stages of post-production, so I can’t afford an assistant editor at the start, but I can later afford a musical score producer and visual effects. And editing is too big of a job to get someone to do it unpaid or deferred as it’s six months of work at least. Colour grading can be outrageously expensive so if I do it, it keeps the post budget way down whilst allowing me to put a lot more time into it than we could ever afford.
CP: You’re credited as the composer on Bloodlands. Tell me a little about that process. What did you use? Did you have any influences or take much inspiration?
S: I’ve always been a big soundtrack geek but never seriously played any instruments. I stumbled into music with a room-mate who had some electronic music gear and he showed me how to use it one night and the next day I went out and bought a midi-keyboard and downloaded Logic Pro. I remembered how to use the software from working closely with the composer on The Horseman who ran Logic Pro. Within a short time of playing around I was confident enough that I could produce a score if it was a little project that I could afford to take the creative risk and Bloodlands came along shortly after. And I felt comfortable tackling it because in all honesty, you don’t need much to create an effective score for a horror film. There’s a lot of easy cheats you could fall back on if needed, but fortunately it didn’t come to that.
CP: How difficult was it shooting in Albania in a foreign language? How long was the shoot? What were the hardest and easiest parts of principal photography?
S: Albania in 2014 didn’t have specialized crew who could do stunts, special effects, creature make-up, etc, so I knew I had to work around that whilst still delivering a horror film, but on the plus side they had a strong acting community that embraced the project, being the first horror film made there. There’s less red-tape to deal with too, which helps a low-budget production. People were in general enthusiastic to help us out, whether it was film industry people or butchers and bakers or the local council.
CP: You’re an Australian having written and directed a movie in Albania, in Albanian, with a mostly Albanian crew. The movie is credited as a co-production, yet it exudes your intent on channeling Albanian folklore and freeing yourself of any Antipodean influences. How international does the movie feel to you?
S: It is a co-production, especially in the last few months where we’ve had to release it in cinemas ourselves as they don’t have distributors there. It’s hard for me to judge how international the film feels, it totally depends on the viewer’s own bias. The Albanians certainly liked the film, so that was a big relief. But the goal wasn’t to make the most authentic social drama that we typically see from Europe. We’re making a horror film with a witch, so we’re not always going for stark realism.
CP: In the realm of horror have witches and witchcraft always held a fascination for you? What are some of your favourite movies involving witches?
S: The Blair Witch Project is the only witch I can think of that really scared me. But you never see her, so it’s probably not a big influence. We shot Bloodlands before the recent film The Witch premiered at Sundance. The main influence is from my childhood, where I’d see creepy old Greek widows dressed in black. They’d often be left alone in dimly lit parts of the room where they sit and watch you, grinning. Then they call you over, smiling with teeth missing, hairy chins, holding a fifty-cent piece. That always spooked me out as a kid and I’m freaked out now just thinking about it!
CP: In low-budget filmmaking, especially horror, what advice, if any, do you have for filmmakers embarking on their first feature? What elements should they take the most care with? What areas are best to enter into collaboration with?
S: Write a good script and find a good cast and everything else will take care of itself if you’re the right filmmaker for the project.
CP: If you were given the chance to adapt something for a Netflix original series, what would you choose?
S: I don’t have any books in mind as I rarely read fiction, but I have a creature-feature I developed with a friend that would be perfect as a limited series on streaming.
C: If you had the opportunity to make a big-budget movie, which you could write and direct, but would not be editor or have final cut, or make another low-budget movie and retain creative control, which would you choose and why?
S: Since doing Bloodlands and witnessing the speed of which it came together, inspires me to keep doing similar projects while trying to get the bigger ones up and not just waiting around. So I’ll be doing both.
CP: Thanks Steven!
Bloodlands screens on Opening Night of A Night Of Horror International Film Festival, Wednesday, November 29th, 7pm, at Dendy Cinemas Newtown. Tickets available here.